For the first time in decades, a real war on the Korean Peninsula is possible.
For the first time in decades, a new war on the Korean peninsula appears to be a distinct probability. Not only does North Korea's regime seem determined to escalate its provocations, but the air has also changed in South Korea, where society is in an unusually bellicose mood nowadays. After North Korean artillery stunned the world by shelling the island of Yeonpyeong last month, killing four and wounding 20, South Korean generals are talking unusually tough. For example, Gen. Han Min-koo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently promised that in case of another North Korean attack, his forces "will completely crush the enemy."
This talk is what the Seoul street wants to hear. In a recent poll, 80 percent of South Koreans said they would support a military retaliation in the event of a fresh North Korean attack. Only six months ago, when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, merely 30 percent favored a military option.
Alas, this shift is not good news, for the hard truth is that restraint is the only option for South Korea. At best, military retaliation would merely be harmful. At worst, it will lead to disaster.
In the past, the South Korean public and government have demonstrated almost inhuman patience every time they faced a North Korean provocation -- and they have had to face such provocations regularly. Over the last few decades, North Korean agents bombed one civilian airliner and hijacked another, assaulted the presidential palace, blew up the half of the cabinet of ministers, and arranged at least two assassination attempts against South Korean presidents -- not counting numerous kidnappings, commandos raids (with an occasional slaughter of civilians), and the sinking of boats. How did South Korea react to all these acts? In the same, time-tested way: by doing nothing.
This unusual restraint reflects the grim reality of the South Korean situation. Half the country's entire population, some 24 million people, live in the capital Seoul and its vicinity, well within the range of North Korean artillery. The country's infrastructure is highly developed and hence highly vulnerable. Since the late 1950s, war has simply not been an option, as Seoul's frustrated strategists assumed that a retaliatory strike would lead to war -- or else prove useless. This assumption was probably correct.
North Korea watchers often describe its provocative actions as either irrational or driven by succession politics. This time, Kim Jong Il's drive to install his son as his heir does seem involved, but on balance Pyongyang's recent attacks are rational acts -- essentially diplomatic demarches, albeit undertaken in somewhat unusual form.
In the late 1990s, under the "sunshine policy," South Korea began providing the North with unconditional aid, but in 2008 the newly elected right-wing administration dramatically reduced the amount. After the second nuclear test in May 2009, the United States halted its aid programs, switching to a policy of "strategic patience" -- in other words, ignoring North Korea. None of this drove the North to economic collapse, as many U.S. policymakers hoped, but it did achieve one thing: It made Pyongyang highly dependent on Beijing's financial and diplomatic largesse.
This was not a development North Korean leaders welcomed, mind you -- they despise and distrust China (suspicions likely only confirmed by the recent WikiLeaks disclosures). The North Korean regime would like to revive its old strategy of having two or three competing sponsors who can be easily played against one another. So, Pyongyang decided to teach Seoul and Washington a lesson, to show that North Korea is too troublesome to be simply ignored. To the Americans, this message was delivered when Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was shown a new state-of-the-art plant producing enriched uranium. For the South, the same message was delivered by artillery shells.
North Korean strategists wanted to demonstrate that they can hit a South Korean government -- even a hawkish one like that of current President Lee Myung-bak -- hard. While Kim Jong Il's regime revels in its international isolation, it knows that such military incidents are bad for the South, whose lifeblood is global trade. Potential business partners blanche at newspaper headlines about "Korea on the brink of war": Economic performance is the single most important thing the average South Korean voter cares about. South Koreans do not like living in a constant state of siege. Even if the current government remains stubborn, North Korean planners figure, chances are that economic troubles and a general sense of unease will contribute to Lee's eventual defeat at the polls.
The ongoing succession adds another wrinkle. Kim Jong Un, the world's youngest four-star general, wants to show his toughness -- much like his father did when he began preparing to take over in the 1970s and 80s. We shouldn't overestimate the succession process's importance, however: Pyongyang would do something along this line anyway -- and since the South Korean government is not giving in, another attack is likely to follow soon, in the next few months.
South Koreans expect that this time their government will retaliate, and it seems that military leaders -- especially after Lee's recent shakeup of the top ranks -- share this mood. It's an understandable reaction, no doubt. But it is also dangerous and counterproductive.
To start with, even if a massive South Korean counterstrike were successful, it would exercise no impact on Pyongyang's political behavior. For instance, with its impressive technological superiority, the South Korean military could probably sink half the North Korean navy in about an hour. In most places, that sort of defeat would have serious political consequences -- but not in North Korea.
The lives of the common soldiers and sailors are of no political significance there. The tiny North Korean elite has demonstrated that it is ready to sacrifice as many of the common people as necessary to stay in control (during the famine of the late 1990s, as many as 1 million people perished, with no discernable political repercussions for the government). The death of a few hundred soldiers will be seen as a sorry but fully acceptable price -- and will not even deter Pyongyang from planning a new round of provocations.
Some argue that such a military disaster would damage the regime, which has staked its reputation on Kim Jong Il's "military first" doctrine. But Kim's regime controls the media so completely that even the most humiliating defeat would be presented as a great victory, a spectacular triumph of North Korean arms. Only a handful of generals will know the truth, and these generals understand that they would have no future without the current regime, so they are unlikely to protest.
So, nothing can be gained from a massive retaliatory strike. But much can be lost. It may be true that neither side wants war, but there is a danger that a South Korean counterstrike would be seen as excessive in Pyongyang. The North may choose to retaliate, perhaps even targeting Seoul this time -- and some 300 long-range guns, located near the capital, can kill thousands in a couple of hours. One cannot be sure whether such an exchange could be stopped in time, and chances for a showdown to escalate into a full-blown war are real, if relatively small. Needless to say, a 21st century war on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences, not only for Korea, but for a world economy that is still emerging from recession.
Yes, it's far more likely the entire affair will be limited to a tit-for-tat exchange of strikes. Yet even that would help Pyongyang achieve its major goal. One can easily imagine how, even in the event of a limited engagement, major newspapers worldwide will run headlines screaming "War in Korea!" That will scare investors and deliver a heavy blow to the southern economy -- exactly what Pyongyang hopes to achieve.
Nor should we be misled by the current bellicosity of the Seoul street. If events take such a turn, the very same people who now loudly demand retaliation will start blaming the government for their economic woes and sense of physical insecurity. Whether Lee and his team will survive this challenge is an open but, frankly, not really important question. What is important is that even a carefully circumscribed crisis will show Pyongyang that its blackmail strategy works.
Does this mean that South Korea should just turn the other cheek? Of course, not, but the possible retaliation should be immediate and small in scale (frankly, of largely symbolic nature). For decades, South Koreans were capable of reacting to truly outrageous acts with remarkable restraint, and this is one of the reasons they now live in a society whose affluence, freedom, and sophistication is the envy of Asia. If they abandon this wise tradition in the coming months, they will pay a heavy price -- as will we all.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images